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Americans United Lawsuit Challenges Sectarian Prayers At Delaware County Council Meetings
President-Led Recitation Of The Lord’s Prayer Shows Unconstitutional Preference For One Faith, Watchdog Group Charges
WASHINGTON - June 30 - A Delaware county council’s insistence on opening meetings with Christian prayer violates the U.S. Constitution and sends the message that non-Christians are second-class citizens, according to a lawsuit filed today in federal court by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Americans United, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, is challenging the Sussex County Council’s long-standing practice of opening each of its meetings with a recitation of the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer, led by Council President Michael H. Vincent.
“The council was elected to represent all of the county’s citizens, Christian or otherwise,” said Ayesha N. Khan, Americans United legal director. “By persistently sponsoring this Christian prayer, the county council has publicly aligned itself with a single faith.
“We have nothing against prayer,” Khan continued. “But the Constitution does not give government officials the right to favor one religion over others.”
In Mullin v. Sussex County, Americans United asks the court to permanently enjoin the county from sponsoring the Lord’s Prayer or any other sectarian prayers at council meetings.
Americans United filed the lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware on behalf of four Sussex County residents. All plaintiffs in the lawsuit have attended council meetings in the past and were offended by the governmental body’s promotion of one religious perspective and disregard of the community’s religious diversity.
“I feel for others who, like myself, resent being subjected to a religious ritual that we may or may not share,” said the Rev. John Steinbruck, a Lutheran minister and a plaintiff in this lawsuit. “It’s un-American in that this is a diverse nation and we should respect that as did Thomas Jefferson.”
Plaintiff Barbara Mullin has attended at least one council meeting per month as an observer for the League of Women Voters and said she is dismayed that these government leaders are not aware of the meaning of the First Amendment.
“The government does not have the right to make the decision as to which or what religion is promoted at a governmental meeting,” said Mullin, a former member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. “When the president starts the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, I feel resentful that they think this choice is theirs instead of mine.
“People who attend these meetings are pressured to go along with this,” she continued, “and for any young students who happen to be attending, it certainly gives them a very erroneous view of what America is.”
Other plaintiffs who have joined the case are Julie Jackson, a Christian and indigenous-rights activist who frequently attends council meetings to advocate on behalf of indigenous interests, and William O’Connor, a retired research psychologist who attended a council meeting to witness a commendation being given to a deceased police officer.
The council meetings occur on most Tuesdays of the year. Since 2009, the Lord’s Prayer has been included in the minutes of the council meetings as an “invocation.”
The meetings are open to the public and simultaneously broadcast on the county’s website, and audio recordings of the meetings are also available on the county’s website after the meetings.
Americans United first wrote to members of the Sussex County Council in June 2008, explaining that legislative prayers that are used to advance one religion are unconstitutional and requesting that the practice be discontinued. In April 2009, AU sent another letter. Neither letter received a response.
In addition to AU’s Khan, AU Madison Fellow Hellen Papavizas, AU Stephen Gey Fellow Robert Shapiro and Delaware attorney David L. Finger have assisted in the case.*
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
* Papavizas is admitted in Massachusetts only, and Shapiro is admitted in Virginia only. Both are directly supervised by Ayesha N. Khan, a member of the D.C. Bar.